Cadet Chapel

The Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the most distinctive feature on the Academy and hosts approximately 500,000 visitors annually. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

The Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the most distinctive feature on the Academy and hosts between 500,000 and 1 million visitors annually.

Soaring 150 feet toward the Colorado sky, the Air Force Academy Chapel is an all-faith house of worship designed to meet the spiritual needs of cadets. It contains a separate chapel for Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious faiths, plus two all-faiths worship rooms. There are two main levels, with the Protestant nave on the upper level. The Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist chapels are located beneath it. Beneath this level is located a large all-faiths room and two meeting rooms. Each chapel has its own entrance, and services may be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.

The aluminum, glass and steel structure features 17 spires. There is no significance to this number. Original designs were judged to be too expensive, so changes were made, among them a reduction in the number of spires. The changes did not alter the basic design or the interior square footage of the chapel, however.

The shell of the chapel and surrounding grounds cost $3.5 million to build. Furnishings, pipe organs, liturgical fittings and adornments of the chapel were presented as gifts from individuals and various organizations. A designated Easter offering was also taken at Air Force bases around the world in 1959 to help complete the interior.

The principal designer-architect of the chapel was Walter A. Netsch Jr. of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago. Construction was by Robert E. McKee, Inc., of Santa Fe, N.M.

The tetrahedrons form the walls and the 99-foot-high pinnacled ceiling of the Protestant Chapel. Stained glass windows form ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons. The colors graduate from dark to light, representing coming from the darkness into the light of God. The floor is gray-white terrazzo.

The chancel is set off by a crescent-shaped, varicolored reredos behind the altar. The 14- by 45-foot reredos represents the arms of God ready to receive anyone who goes there in prayer. Semi-precious stones from Colorado and pietra santa marble from Italy cover its 1,260 square-foot area.

A sleek marble slab 15 feet long, formed in the shape of ship symbolizing the church, is the holy table, or altar. Four travertine marble legs support the table.

The focal point of the chancel is the cross suspended above it. Constructed of aluminum, the cross is 46 feet, 2 inches high, 12 feet wide and weighs 1,200 pounds.

Surrounding the curved steps of the altar are 12 kneelers done in needle-point by officers wives' clubs throughout the Air Force. Each kneeler contains different designs of the cross or Christian symbols as they appear throughout Christian history.

The pews, which can seat 1,200, are made of American walnut and African mahogany. They were sculptured so the end of each pew resembles a World War I airplane propeller. The backs of the pews are capped by a strip of aluminum similar to the leading edge of a fighter aircraft wing.

Perched in the choir loft above the narthex and reaching the uppermost heights of the chapel is the classical pipe organ. Designed by Walter Holtkamp of the Holtkamp Organ Co. and built by the M.P Moller Co., the organ has 83 ranks and 67 stops controlling 4,334 pipes. The largest pipe is 32 feet high and the smallest is pencil size.

The focal point of the Catholic Chapel is the reredos behind the altar. An abstract glass mosaic mural, the reredos is composed of varying shades of blue, turquoise, rose and gray tessera to form a portrayal of the firmament. Superimposed on the mural and depicting the Annunciation are two 10-foot tall marble figures, The Blessed Virgin Mary on the left, and the Archangel Gabriel on the right. Above and between these two figures is a marble dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

In front of the reredos is the altar, a gift from the late Francis Cardinal Spellman, who dedicated this chapel on Sept. 22, 1963. The altar is Italian white marble mounted on a marble cone-shaped pedestal. Above the altar is a six-foot sculptured nickel-silver crucifix.

The side walls of the chapel, from floor to ceiling, are panels of amber glass. Between the amber glass panels are strip windows of multi-colored cast glass set in precast reinforced concrete.

Along the side walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross, carved from four-inch thick slabs of marble. The recessed backgrounds in the sculptures are multi-colored tessera.

Both the Stations of the Cross and the reredos were designed and completed by the late Lumen Martin Winter. The figures are done in Carrera marble, from the same quarries where Michelangelo drew his stone.

The pews, which seat 500 people, are of American walnut trimmed in satin finished stainless steel.

There is a reconciliation room at the rear of the 55 by 95-foot nave. The Blessed Sacrament Room and the baptistry are located to the left of the main doors just inside the chapel entrance. The walls of this room are Italian marble and Colorado quartz crystals embedded with multi-colored semi-precious stones from the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The classical pipe organ, placed in the 100-seat choir loft, was designed by Walter Holtkamp and built by M. P. Moller Co. It features 36 ranks and 29 stops controlling its 1,950 pipes.

Architecturally, the synagogue is a circle within a square. The circular design symbolizes the global mission of the Air Force and the everlasting presence of God. The surrounding foyer is paved with 1,631 pieces of Jerusalem stone donated by the Israeli Defense Forces.

The walls of the foyer are purple stained glass panels alternating with green and blue stained accent windows. The circular walls of the synagogue are panels of translucent glass separated by stanchions of Israeli cypress.

The paintings, done by Shlomo Katz in 1985 and 1986, depict a Biblical story. They are divided into three groups; brotherhood, flight (in honor of the Air Force) and justice.

The focal point of the Jewish Chapel is the Aaron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, which shelters the Scrolls of the Torah. The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) hangs to the right of the Ark. Nested in three Stars of David, it symbolizes the ever-present God within the life of the Jewish People.

In the foyer of the chapel is a display cabinet with a Torah Scroll that was saved from the Nazis during World War II. It was found in Poland in 1989 in an abandoned warehouse and donated to the Jewish Chapel in April 1990. This "Holocaust Torah" is dedicated to the memory of all of those who fought against the Nazis.

The synagogue is the only chapel with individual chairs for the congregation. It seats 100 people.

The Buddhist Chapel (Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) is 300 square feet and is the newest addition to the Cadet Chapel. Donated in 2007, the Dharma Hall was built freestanding within the existing structure. It is made of Port Orford Cedar, a rare, fragrant wood used for temple building in Japan, and its simply proportioned design welcomes Buddhists of all denominations as well as guests.

The altar and alcove are constructed of American Cherry and Ash and were designed and built by Takayuki Kida, a traditionally trained Japanese woodworker. The Buddha figure on the altar is Burmese, and the large lion-topped censer is from China. The figure of Avalokiteshvara, known as the one who hears the sounds of the world's suffering, stands near the entry. The arrangement of the altar focuses on the Buddha figure, representing not only gratitude to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, born approximately 556 BCE) but also the possibility of awakening, or enlightenment. The altar also offers appreciation for the four elements of life: earth, air, fire, and water.

Ed Shure, the designer and builder of the hall, commented that he is very happy to have played a part in providing a place where people can enjoy the present moment.

The worship area known as the Cadet Chapel - Falcon Circle came about through a request from the Air Force Academy's followers of Earth-Centered Spirituality, an umbrella of traditions that includes Wicca, Paganism and Druidism. The large stones comprising the circle were removed from the side of the hill overlooking the Academy's visitor center, where erosion threatened to collapse them onto the visitor center. The circular nature in which the stones were placed lent itself to facilitating outdoor worship services.

Following the Earth-Centered community's request, the Academy spent approximately $50,000 to upgrade the area, adding flagstones to enhance the circle's safety and a fire pit to accommodate religious services. Cameras were added to protect the site from unauthorized access.

The Falcon Circle was dedicated in an official ceremony May 3, 2011, making it the newest of the Cadet Chapel's worship areas. It is open to use by all religious communities to worship in a manner respectful of other faiths; however, in the event of scheduling conflicts, the Earth-Centered community receives precedence.

The All-Faiths Room provides a worship area for smaller religious groups. It is purposely void of religious symbolism so that it may be used by a variety of faiths. Distinguishing faith-specific accouterments are available for each group to use during their worship service.

(Current as of December 2011)